Coalition calls for numbers on NBN but needs to provide some of its own: Analysis

Opposition broadband spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull has two real and continuing frustrations with the national broadband network debate: NBN Co’s lack of transparency, and journalists’ failure to research how broadband is actually done in other countries.

There is an air of complete barking unreality about some of the commentary. There is a lack of interest in what is happening in other markets,” Turnbull said this morning at Kickstart Forum 2013, a get-together of tech journos and vendors on the Sunshine Coast.

Journalists point to Spain’s fibre-to-the-node premises rollout, for example, without understanding one key difference: in Spain, it was hard to do FTTN because there are no kerbside cabinets in which to put the nodes. In the Franco era, the government feared anarchists would blow up the cabinets, so instead they laid the wires of their copper network straight from the exchange to the premises in cable ducts much larger than Australia’s. It was therefore easy to string fibre down those ducts too.

Turnbull’s comments today echoed those he made on ABC Radio’s AM in January:

This is not a religious issue. It is a question of being business-like and getting the balance right, as I said. The problem with this debate is that it is proceeding in some quarters as a quasi-religious debate.”

The argument against fibre-to-the-node is that it doesn’t deliver the same performance as fibre-to-the-premises. That’s the argument,” he said this morning. Questions of costs and the time it takes to build are ignored.

Yet, as I’ve argued at ZDNet, Turnbull is effectively running a quasi-religious debate himself. He’s asking us to take at face value statements such as being able to build FTTN for a quarter the price of FTTP, or his potentially powerful arguments involving opportunity costs and the relative value for money spent now versus money spent in the future.

So why can’t we see the spreadsheets that would convince us? Turnbull says that’s because we’d need NBN Co’s figures.

If the NBN were to say, ‘well, we’re going to sit down with you and work with you on this scenario B’, we could come up with some much more robust numbers,” he said. “Really, the NBN Co should be an open book. It doesn’t have any competition, it belongs to the taxpayers. You can find more about what Telstra’s doing as a public listed company than you can about the NBN Co.”

There’s no reason why NBN Co couldn’t report monthly the details of premises passed, premises activated and the cost of doing that, he says.

Turnbull repeated the Coalition’s commitment that, if elected, they will “very, very quickly” conduct a transparent analysis of the NBN’s current FTTP network rollout and a similar analysis of variations thereof?—?including FTTN in brownfield rollouts?—?to determine the potential savings in money and time.

But there have been estimates, Turnbull noted, including Telstra’s rejected 2009 tender, which quoted for a FTTN NBN built from ground zero at around $15 billion. Since then labour costs have risen but equipment costs have dropped.

Why couldn’t the Coalition start putting out at least rough estimates for their plan, using whatever figures were available? “If I put out a set of financials, I want them to be right,” he said.

This article first appeared on Crikey.


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